How to Become a Certified Cicerone


[Photograph: Dustin Hall]

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BEER!

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Not very long ago in America, beer was generally unexciting and bland. Beer was beer. Movies and TV programs would show someone walking into a bar, saying “Give me a beer,” and actually getting served. It’s not like people in the ‘70s and ‘80s were ordering “a wine” or “one liquor.” What Prohibition started—the decline of independent brewers—rapid post–World War II industrialization and consolidation nearly finished. By 1978, there were only 89 breweries in America. With a dwindling number of producers competing to make the most cost-effective light lager, the American brewing industry just wasn’t super interesting.

But these days, as you’ve surely noticed, the number of independent producers is booming, supermarket shelves boast a tremendous variety of styles, and beer is getting the respect it deserves. People are passionate about beer in a way Uncle Todd drinking Stroh’s in the backyard out of a koozie never was—many more beer drinkers nowadays study the styles and keep tasting notes, obsessively track new brewery openings, teach themselves to home-brew, and stand in massive lines for special releases. And with that surge in mainstream popularity have come ways for people both inside and outside the brewing industry to collect, expand, and prove their knowledge on beer. As an outgrowth of that, some companies have come along to offer certification and training to gauge whether someone knows what they’re talking about when they talk about what’s in your glass.

That certification works in favor of brewers and distributors—they can gauge a job candidate’s general level of knowledge without having to test them, train employees without having to write up or administer an in-house program, or use employee certification as an indicator of passion and knowledge. But are the concepts studied in these programs relevant to everyday drinkers, aside from conferring a greater chance of finding good beer at the bar? I decided to find out.

Going for Certification

[Photograph: Rich Orris]

My quest began where I assume most other people’s does—Monday-night curling on a lethally cold January evening in Chicago in 2017. I curl (it’s like bowling but more precise, or shuffleboard but slippery) in a league made up of teams sponsored by breweries, beer bars, and other beer-adjacent concerns; I hit the ice for Lo Rez Brewing, a newer South Side brewery owned by friends of mine. One of the other teams was made up of employees from the Cicerone Certification Program, which has certified beer-service knowledge at different levels since 2007.

At the time, I appreciated that mission, and drank my fair share of beer, but I also couldn’t have told you the difference between an IPA, an APA, and an amber ale. I knew I loved roasty, coffee-like stouts and strong, figgy Belgian abbey ales. But the nuances—why I liked the refreshing bitterness of the IPA from the brewery down the street, yet found the acclaimed barley wine from Colorado kinda caustic; the recipe differences between beer styles; most of the actual brewing process—totally escaped me.

I wasn’t looking forward to memorizing hundreds of data points about various beer styles, which I knew was part of getting certified. But the Cicerone employees were encouraging, and I accepted their invitation to the Road to Cicerone Bootcamp®—a weeklong course of hands-on instruction designed to give those serious about certification a big push toward passing the three-plus-hour test.* And, since I’d be spending a week of class time on the subject, it only made sense to think about taking the certification exam as well.

* Full disclosure: I got to attend for free—a big deal, as the regular price is $1,995—but explicitly with zero expectation of media coverage.

Cicerone Certification Levels

The Cicerone Certification Program offers four levels of certification:

  • Certified Beer Server: A 30-minute, 60-question online test. Many breweries and beer-focused bars encourage or require this level for employees. Currently there are more than 100,000 Certified Beer Servers worldwide.
  • Certified Cicerone®: A three-plus-hour exam, including essays and tasting, with a pass rate of around one-third. There are 3,331 Certified Cicerones worldwide at the moment.
  • Advanced Cicerone™: The newest certification level, which culminates in an expansive two-day written, oral, and tasting exam. There are currently 88 Advanced Cicerones.
  • Master Cicerone®: The highest level of beer-knowledge certification that Cicerone offers, requiring two days of oral, written, and tasting challenges with over a dozen experts from around the industry. Only 16 people have achieved the title, including BrewDog cofounder James Watt and Patrick Rue of The Bruery.

Cicerone isn’t the only certification game in town. The Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program keep beer styles codified, and the latter certifies judges for brewing competitions. Canadians interested in brewing and service can take the Prud’homme Beer Certification course, provided they’re able to travel to whichever university is holding classes. And the Master Brewers Association of the Americas offers a range of Beer Steward certificates for service professionals.

But I don’t brew, Cicerone is local (like, walk-there-from-my-house local), and from my perspective—years working as a writer in the very beer-adjacent food and restaurant world—it seemed to loom largest over the service-side certification landscape.

The test has a reputation as a tough one. Cicerone doesn’t track or share exact pass/fail numbers, but the pass rate is about 40%, which, for context, is a good deal lower than most states’ bar exam pass rates.

Boot Camp, but for Drinking

[Photograph: Liz Clayman]

So it happened that for one week in February 2017, I abandoned most of my worldly responsibilities to learn to drink better. And I wasn’t alone—17 other people had come from around the world, including China, New Zealand, and Panama, to take the class. Before we even set foot in the classroom, the program emailed us a fairly comprehensive list of readings to brush up on in preparation for the first day. We spent the week hearing from Moody Tongue brewmaster (and black truffle pilsner creator) Jared Rouben, Tasting Beer author Randy Mosher, Cicerone founder Ray Daniels, and others. Classroom lectures ran from 10 a.m. to about 6 p.m. every day, and two nights featured beer-pairing dinners afterward. Lectures covered topics ranging from draft theory (gas pressure, troubleshooting, proper cleaning) to tasting technique to brewing history. Beer-style tastings and comparisons were woven through the lecture units, with consideration for the time of day—no tastings first thing in the morning, no imperial stouts before noon. One thing to note is that the certification exam is not offered especially soon after the week of the class, because a) there’s a whole lot more to study independently, and b) they don’t want to create a perception that you’re paying to pass the exam.

I didn’t have the built-in advantage of most candidates, who are employed in the industry and thus are around beer and pick up firsthand knowledge of it all day. So I needed to figure out when I’d be ready, and set the date myself.

Plenty of people have gone through this process already (Serious Eats contributor Lucy Burningham even wrote a very cool book about it), so I asked around for a realistic timeline. The general response I got from people in the know was one to two years, but I chose a date around 11 months out, in November. It seemed like just about enough time to become confident in knowing the material.

With the class complete and the test slated, it was time to study.

The Certified Cicerone exam is structured as a three-hour written test (short-answer and essay), an hour consisting of three separate tasting-exam units, and a brief taped demonstration. The syllabus breaks the entirety of what you need to know into five distinct units, which I tackled individually.

Pouring Beer, Professionally

[Photograph: Liz Clayman]

The first major section of the exam addresses beer service. Draft systems, kegs, bottles, glassware, line cleaning—everything relevant to the operation of a beer-focused bar that gets the beer to the drinker in the best possible condition. I hadn’t worked at a bar a day in my life. I knew that Guinness gets nitrogen for the fancy bubbles, and that was about it.

And I’m sure it wasn’t just me. A lot of your passionate craft-beer advocates—the ones who stand in line for hours to get this double IPA or that barrel-aged stout—don’t home-brew, bartend, or work in beer stores. I needed to figure out, roughly:

  • How and why you clean draft-beer lines
  • Cleaning and replacement schedules for the rest of the equipment
  • How to fix a tap that isn’t pouring correctly
  • How different draft systems (long-draw, kegerator, jockey boxes, et cetera) operate
  • How to apply the right amount of pressure to a keg to get a good pour from the tap
  • What kind of gases, and in what mix, to apply to kegs
  • How heat, oxygen, light, and time affect beer

Fortunately, the Brewers Association puts this kind of information out for free. You can go download everything I needed to know, if you’re curious. After that, it’s just a matter of studying, and maybe persuading a friendly bar or taproom owner to let you have a little practical experience. I found that after just a few study sessions (and some hands-on work with a borrowed draft faucet), every component fit together naturally, and the whole system made intuitive sense. Like a Lego set designed by Tom Waits.

Even for experienced brewers, it can be a lot to learn. Kevin Lilly, cofounder of Lo Rez Brewing (and co-captain of my aforementioned curling squad), began as a home brewer and found that figuring out the service-side details was a vital prerequisite before opening a commercial brewery and taproom. He ended up pursuing Cicerone certification to smooth his transition to full-time commercial brewer.

“Both my cofounder and I got a lot out of the draft-system knowledge—maintenance, troubleshooting for foamy beer, and fixing issues as they come up,” Lilly says. “We took it from there, and by digging deeper into the science, we were able to build our own draft system.”

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The other half of service is customer-facing. What glassware matches up with certain beers (Belgian-style beers need more room for a tall head, while high-ABV beers should get smaller glasses); how to tell if a glass is clean enough for beer (basically, no bubbles clinging to the side); and how to manage inventory to ensure the beer in a customer’s glass is at its peak (serve it as fresh as possible, and rotate your stock frequently).

The kinda sad thing is that once you figure out how things work, you also start noticing when they’re off. The next thing you know, you’re realizing that the tap at your favorite bar, the one with worn-out chrome plating and exposed brass, is giving your beer a metallic aftertaste. You can’t un-learn things. But hey—that’s what cans and bottles are for.

I took a go at the first of several practice tests and failed. Not by a ton, but I was also self-grading pretty leniently.

In addition to storing away all this geeky beer knowledge, I learned something else around this time, with far greater personal consequences: My wife and I were expecting our second child in August. I remembered what having a newborn was like, so the idea of taking the test in November was out, as was September. So suddenly “I’ll have most of the year to prepare” turned into taking the test on July 12.

Let’s Learn 71 Different Kinds of Beer!

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

To call yourself a Cicerone, you need to be familiar with 71 unique styles of beer, and you have to learn the following for each one:

  • Color range, expressed in the Standard Reference Method, a color-associated number from 1 to 40 that measures how much light passes through the beer
  • Alcohol range, expressed in alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • The amount of dissolved isohumulone (an iso-alpha acid found in hops), expressed in International Bitterness Units (IBU)
  • The ratio of Original Gravity (which measures the amount of dissolved sugars in the wort prior to fermentation) to Final Gravity (the same measurement, afterward). This dictates much of the result, including alcohol content, mouthfeel, and how dry or sweet a beer tastes.
  • Flavor descriptors—does the beer have bready, nutty, or biscuit-y malt notes? Are the hops herbaceous, citrusy, or fruity? Is the beer effervescent and highly carbonated, or thick on the palate?

The styles aren’t set in stone, or even decided on by Cicerone. They use the BJCP style guidelines, which are updated every five years to reflect trends in brewing. So I used flash cards—lots and lots of flash cards. When I got sick of that, I used an app on my phone. It was a flash card app, but it seemed new and exciting at the time.

Looking at beer just by the numbers isn’t fun or productive, and as I progressed, I realized that you don’t have to murder yourself memorizing figures if you know how different styles relate to each other. Kolsch looks and tastes a lot like the traditional light German lagers but is made with an ale yeast; the hoppier character of American wheat beer is the result of American brewers trying to make Weissbier before recipes were widely available; and the English bitters are mostly distinguished from one another by their alcohol levels.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When you’re learning about the styles, you usually get a history lesson along with the numbers. You learn how the town of Plzen in the Czech Republic changed the entire concept of what people thought of as beer with the pilsner—setting the first example of the crisp, clear, and golden-colored brew that drinkers worldwide think of as the default form of beer. Or how London’s porters and stouts were the first mass-produced beers, and how their business practices paved the way for the beer world of today. Or, famously, how a few lines from a tax law in Germany in 1516 (the Reinheitsgebot), dictating that beer must be made with only water, barley, and hops, continue to loom large over how the world treats beer.

And, most importantly, you have to, you know, drink the stuff to really get an idea of what sets different varieties apart. Between January and July, I tried a staggering 219 beers, give or take a couple—everything from a plastic cup of Old Style at Wrigley Field (okay, maybe several) to a foraged-ingredient sahti at a tiny brewery in a town of 629 people. And I took a ton of notes along the way, adding as much evocative language as I could so I’d be able to call up the memory months after the fact. For instance:

  • “Scalded milk, Tootsie Roll” (milk stout)
  • “It’s like an old person made an Airhead from figs. A little cherry and currant, thin body.” (A Flanders red ale. Belgian beer is great for memorable flavors.)
  • “Dirt. Rotten mud. Old garbage. Dear god, what happened?” (Bière de garde. Turns out the yeast had autolyzed—become strained and basically eaten itself—which can create a lot of strong, unpleasant flavors.)
  • “Acrid. Maple syrup. Black pepper in old coffee. Smoke smoke smoke.” (This was for a rauchbier I actually quite liked.)

To pass the exam, you also need to be able to tell styles apart just by taste. They showed us a bit of this in the class, during which I failed to tell a German pilsner from a kolsch all three times it came up. So I bought a bunch of pils and a bunch of kolsch, and considered it all study material.

In late May, it was time for practice test number two. I either passed or failed by a couple points. (I got a few too many wrong on the short-answer portion, and it’s kind of hard to grade your own essays.) Also, I still couldn’t tell a pils from a kolsch.

Learning How to Make Beer by Making Beer

[Photograph: Liz Clayman]

While the BJCP exam maintains a far more in-depth and intense focus on the brewing process, the Cicerone exam also asks a fair bit of test takers about how to make beer. This is generally where the home brewers excel and the beer-distributor employees tend to fall short. Hands-on experience really makes the knowledge click.

Through some of that hands-on work, and lots of reading, I ran through the following:

  • Beer ingredients and how variations affect the beer
  • How yeast strains contribute to a beer’s character
  • Non-core stuff that gets added to beer (known as adjuncts, including oats, rye, and corn) and what they do
  • How different brewing processes dictate the result in your glass
  • The equipment that’s used in brewing and what each item does in sequence

Really, the way to drive everything home is to brew at least one batch. There are a couple different kits available online that let you produce a gallon of beer at a time for around 50 bucks. And, while your scale will be different from that of, say, Lagunitas, home brewing and commercial brewing are essentially the same process, according to Lilly.

“If you’re all-grain [using malt, rather than malt extract] home-brewing, I’d say you’re probably learning 95% of how the commercial brewing process works. The underpinnings are all there: the knowledge of why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I’m choosing a certain mash temp, what kind of hops are added and at what time,” he says. “The biggest difference between home brewing and commercial brewing is the scaling, and even pros moving to new systems have to deal with that issue.”

At yet another practice test, in June, I finally did well enough—91%, give or take—that I felt pretty sure I was making good progress. I’d started confidently pointing out kolsches and pilsners like a dramatic courtroom prosecutor. Sometimes, I was even right.

Learning to Taste

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Learning a higher level of beer tasting was both really cool and somewhat intimidating. I’m guilty as anyone of rolling my eyes at someone nose-deep in a glass of beer or wine, talking about “notes of chicory” and “a hint of citrus fruit.” It’s easy to scoff at—it sounds kind of pretentious or kind of impossible, depending on your attitude. But I needed to figure it out.

First lesson: There’s a reason no one feels super confident discerning individual flavors in food or drink at first—it’s a learned skill. I’m not a mouth scientist, but one thing I did learn is that human beings’ sense of taste operates on a Will Kill Me/Won’t Kill Me binary. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t concern themselves as much with hints of dark fruit and sherry.

So what you end up doing to learn to taste is building new memory associations and flavor descriptions. Taste, blurt something out, repeat. Literally, just blurting out whatever dumbass thing comes to your mind is the best way to start to create flavor associations, at least from what I remember from Randy Mosher’s classroom lecture. Eventually, you’ll get more confident, and it will come more naturally. I started finding new flavors in my morning coffee within a couple months, which is something I’d never cared to do.

The only wrong-wrong thing to do is get tentative about being wrong, and shut down. This is another place where a lot of people quit, because it can be hard to put yourself out there and think you might be wrong.

Writing this piece was a big help in mastering the off-flavors part—identifying the flavor characteristics of compounds like dimethyl sulfide, diacetyl, acetaldehyde, trans-2-nonenol, 3MBT, and acetic acid that indicate a problem with the beer. I also ended up taking a separate off-flavor class through Cicerone. Another option is off-flavor spikes for your beer, which you can find here and here, though, cost-wise, it’s a lot easier if you can split it with a few other people who are also trying to master the yuck. You’re paying to get the unfiltered versions of these flavors, but chances are you’ll encounter them in the wild eventually.

“The off flavors we test on are definitely the most common that you’ll run into at a bar,” Shana Solarte, who teaches Cicerone’s off-flavor-specific courses, says. “I hear all the time where someone runs into a stale, papery beer. It’s really important for us to use a set of flavors that are realistic. You’re learning to taste beer to assess whether it’s in good shape.”

Right before the exam, my wife helped me spike beers and blind-taste them. And she tried really hard not to laugh at my grave, “This is me swirling and noting the bouquet of some skunked Amstel Light” face. She also helped me in one final round of Pilsner or Kolsch: Seriously, Enough Already With This.

Food and Beer Pairing: Possibly Black Magic

[Photograph: Brendan Daly and Dayna Crozier]

Once you start to pull out individual flavors in beer, you need to turn your brain to pairing with food. While pairing is tricky, complex, and frustrating (many people’s opinions on the matter, both online and among friends and loud acquaintances, begin and end with yelling “BULLSH*T!” through cupped hands), the right pairing can really make both the food and the beer sing. Certain malting and mashing processes in beer production create reactions in the malt (including every Serious Eats reader’s favorite, the Maillard reaction) that mirror ones you find in food.

The easiest approach was to start small. Grilled sausage with a beer that features roasted malt. A light citrus-dressed salad with a fragrant, bitter IPA to balance the sweetness. A dark chocolate cake paired with a raspberry kriek reminds diners of classic desserts. Then, figure out a few things that don’t work—poached shrimp with an imperial stout washes out all the briny seafood flavor; spicy beef curry with a double IPA creates an irritating amplification of the heat on your scorched palate. Add to that my experience trying to pair a Scottish wee heavy with sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms—two relatively earthy things that kind of tasted like mud when layered on top of each other.

What works for some people won’t work for others, but generally, there’s stuff that works well enough to be standard (brown ale and cheddar cheese), stuff that doesn’t work at all (mint and dark beer produces a certain toothpaste quality), and stuff in the middle, a space where you can refine pairings by degrees and find new and interesting combinations. It’s not the biggest focus of the exam, but it’s also important to view beer flavors and traits outside of a beer-only bubble. We’ve published a fair amount on beer pairing, because it’s one of those realms where you can always find new and surprising things to elevate the dining experience.

[Photograph: Mike Reis]

Time to Take a Big Dang Beer Test

Eventually, after a few months of flash cards on the train ride to work, beer books during lunch, and YouTube videos on draft systems at night, it was time to quit studying and take the test. I didn’t drink the night before—standard test prep, but a little funnier considering the subject matter.

To pass, and earn the title of Certified Cicerone, candidates need to score at least an 80% on the overall test, and at least a 70% on the tasting exam, no matter what the overall score is. Both written and tasting exams can be retaken separately.

Our phones were sealed in envelopes, our names replaced with numbers to ensure grading impartiality, and test packets were distributed.

There were dozens upon dozens of short-answer questions, covering everything from the areas I’d studied, sometimes in extreme detail. What kind of beer fits these descriptors? What color should this beer be? When should you add yeast to the fermenter during the brewing process, and why?

Then there were three essay questions—one covering a retail service setup, one covering the attributes and history of a specific beer style, and one on the flavor results of a certain element of the brewing process.

Once I’d answered everything and turned in my test, I went off for my short recorded demonstration. I was filmed from the neck down (about as anonymous as they can get), detailing the parts, function, and cleaning method of a specific piece of the draft system. Luckily, this was a piece I’d carried around in my bag since February, taking it apart and putting it back together, Full Metal Jacket–style, until I knew it inside and out.

If I’m being slightly vague about the exam where you’d want more detail, this is where I point out that exam takers sign a nondisclosure form that states they won’t reveal the test questions to others.

A lot of people used every second of the three hours. I finished the written exam around two hours in, and, since my phone was sealed in an envelope and my scratch paper was turned in with the test, the remainder of the time was a solid 70 minutes of staring at the wall and disassembling and reassembling my pen.

Eventually, time was called, and we got a short break before the tasting exam. One guy whispered something to the effect of “I can’t…” to the proctor and left, never to return. Either he’d already passed the tasting exam, or I was witness to a fairly calm and polite test freakout. I hoped it was the first one.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The tasting portion of the exam stands on its own—as I mentioned, you can retake the tasting alone, and a decent number of people end up having to. There are three distinct components:

  • Identifying off flavors in a low-key light beer
  • Style discrimination, in which you’re asked to identify which of two similar styles a given beer is (e.g., “Is this beer a milk stout or an Irish stout?”)
  • A service portion, which puts you in the scenario of a bar manager tasting beer a customer has sent back. Is it okay to serve, or has it gone off? And if it has, how?

While we waited, the staff poured sample after sample of beer for the tasting portion—12 per person, covering a large table in the front of the room. The anticipation was intense, with only these beers standing between us and the end of the test.

The off-flavor section went well—I’d practiced with spiked samples the night before, and managed to peg all of them pretty quickly. The next section in the exam was the style discrimination. It was time! Pilsner versus kolsch. Kolsch v. pils. KvP! I’d spent months preparing for this. I was going to completely knock it out of the…

…aaaand, it wasn’t on the exam. The guy next to me wondered why I was laughing. But if any of you ever have a bunch of unlabeled kolsch and pilsner that needs sorting, I’m your man—this is permanently burned into my brain.

Style discrimination is a great example of the necessity of trusting your first instinct when you’re tasting. You learn a lot about different beers while you’re studying, but if you spend too much time trying to call that information back and bring it to what’s in front of you, things go sideways. You can convince yourself that your initial decision was wrong, and your mind will walk you all the way back to the wrong decision. It happened to me when I decided that yes, I was totally getting notes of dark fruit and plum, along with a candi-sugar dryness, in the Belgian dubbel that was in front of me. Except it wasn’t a dubbel at all; it was the other option, which was what I’d thought in the first place, and my idiot brain cost me points. But you never forget hard-won wisdom like this: Don’t overthink a beer, and never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

The final tasting-exam section is easily the most nerve-wracking, because your list of possible responses encompasses basically everything you’ve studied. You’re given four beers, along with their names, styles, and how they were served (i.e., draft or bottle/can). If the beer is bad, you have to detail why, and how it likely happened.

I was fairly confident on my answers for three of the four in this section and encountered a bad beer in need of an explanation for the fourth. It was a darker, malt-focused British ale, which made it trickier to peg the issue, since I’d studied these off flavors in lighter beers, where flaws really jump out. I thought it had a little diacetyl, but it was actually lightstruck. Half credit, maybe?

While getting your overall results takes weeks, the tasting answers are all revealed right after the test when you discuss the beers. These beers are also blind-tasted by a staff member to ensure that everything tasted was as good or as bad as it should have been. It’s sort of a call-and-response discussion (“Okay, who answered double IPA on this?”), so tentative hands went up with every question. And, wouldn’t you know it, a surprising number of people talked themselves into tasting flaws in the un-spiked beers. Tasting is hard, and will wreck your brain given half a chance.

The Waiting Game

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

With all the beer-learning done (hopefully), I went for a beer after the exam. Luckily, there’s a brewery right across the railroad tracks. Someone else in the test session, a lab tech at the Goose Island brewery, had the same idea. She and I agreed that it was nice to taste a beer without thinking too hard about it after months of focusing on this one test.

From that moment until I got the email with my exam results, I managed to convince myself that I’d passed, that I’d failed, that I’d passed with flying colors, and that I’d failed spectacularly. It’s easy to talk yourself in and out, especially as a lot of industry pros with deep knowledge and experience have needed more than one try to pass.

“We’ve had professional brewers who know everything about brewing and off flavors take the exam and totally nail those sections, but fail overall because they don’t have adequate style knowledge and know very little about proper beer service,” Cicerone founder Ray Daniels says. “Likewise, an expert in draft systems and beer styles could totally kill those sections, but not pass due to lack of brewing knowledge and lack of tasting skills. These individuals might well know more, overall, about beer than someone who does pass the exam, but the scores won’t reflect that. So, we don’t put a lot of stock in ‘the highest score’ or in comparing scores too closely.”

After about five weeks and change, while holding my one-day-old kid in the hospital, I got my results. I passed! Here’s how things broke down for me:

  • Overall: 89%
  • Tasting: 86%
  • Keeping and Serving Beer: 94%
  • Beer Styles: 85%
  • Beer Flavor and Evaluation: 90%
  • Ingredients and Processes: 92%
  • Food and Beer Pairing: 84%

After all that, I was finally able to confirm that you can definitely go from “Yeah, beer’s good” to “It all started with Josef Groll in 1842…” in about six months. You might have to make it your hobby—I didn’t read a non-beer book from January until July last year—and, as with any test prep, you’re going to have to cram your brain with some stuff you find less than interesting. But eventually, it makes sense, you start to ask better questions, and you look at beer differently from how you did before. Most important, the process should make beer more fun for you.

[Photograph: Brendan Daly and Dayna Crozier]

The knock on certification programs in general (and Cicerone specifically, on some message boards) is that they reduce something that people feel organic love for to a set of right and wrong answers. But that’s like saying maps take the fun out of travel: Once you know what to look for, you see the little peaks and valleys and offshoots that build the rich landscape of beer. People who want to learn more about beer and test themselves don’t tend to end up liking beer less. Months later, I’m relieved to report that I still love a cold Guinness, even though I know that fairy dust and ancient brewer magic probably don’t make a pint served in Dublin any better. And, even better, I’m finding new things to enjoy in the beers I’d thought I already knew, and giving ones I’d thought I hated a second chance.

If you’re interested in learning more about beer, or even getting certified, my advice is to go for it if the time, money (the Certified Beer Server exam costs $69 to take, while the Certified Cicerone exam is $395), and work involved make sense for your own goals. You don’t have to take a fancy weeklong course like I did—most people who take the exams don’t—and you can find a syllabus for each level of certification on Cicerone’s website. If you prefer to do your cramming in the company of others, scout around online for an in-person study group in your area.

The eventual certificate (and yes, it is a handsome certificate) is about 1% as important as the things you learn and the people you meet in pursuit of it. Turns out that brewers, bottle-shop owners, and bartenders, at least the good ones, love to talk and share what they’re passionate about. So get out there and try something new. If I can do it, you definitely can.



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